From the Collection: Blake’s Anniversary

William Blake was born on this day in 1757, 260 years ago, at 28 Broad Street in Soho. His first important biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, describes his birth as follows:

William Blake, the most spiritual of artists, a mystic poet and painter, who lived to be a contemporary of Cobbett and Sir Walter Scott, was born 28th November, 1757, the year of Canova’s birth, two years after Stothard and Flaxman; while Chatterton, a boy of five, was still sauntering about the winding streets of antique Bristol. Born amid the gloom of a London November, at 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market, Golden Square (market now extinct), he was christened on the 11th December – one in a batch of six – from Grinling Gibbons’ ornate font in Wren’s noble Palladian church of St. James’s. He was the son of James and Catherine Blake, the second child in a family of four.

Ten years ago, to mark the 250th anniversary, Royal Mail released a commemorative stamp as part of its “Great Britain, Our Island’s History” series of collections, pictured here. The image is taken from the portrait painted by Thomas Phillips in 1807 and which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The accompanying card, which provides a brief biography, concludes:

He believed passionately in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity. He retained an active interest in social and political events all his life, but was often forced to resort to cloaking social idealism and political statements in Protestant mystical allegory. On the day he died, Blake worked relentlessly, eventually ceasing and turning to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Seeing her, Blake is said to have cried, ‘Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.’ Having completed this portrait, he laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses and at six that evening, after promising his wife he would be always with her, he died.

Blake’s life, if not his art, was one of wonderful simplicity and has always been as much an inspiration to me as his painting and poetry. I have never desired his poverty and his struggle, but that he was able to keep faith with Catherine and his visions is something that speaks to me now, some 260 years later after this great man was born.

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